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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Four Barrel brings more than great coffee to the Portola

Four Barrel Coffee, 375 Valencia St
Photo: Chris Waddling
What is it about the Portola that prompted a popular local coffee roaster to open their second retail location under the Four Barrel name at 1 Burrows St, along the San Bruno Ave corridor? This was the question we asked co-owners Jeremy Tooker and Jodi Geren when we sat down to chat with them above their Valencia Street roaster.

Co-owners Jodi Geren and Jeremy Tooker,
where it all began on Caledonia St.
Photo: Erik Auerbach
Tooker said that when he first came to San Francisco 10 years ago, Valencia and 14th wasn’t generally thought of as being a cool place to be, and he sees the Portola in a similar way.  Back in those days, “no one parked on Valencia street in front of the old blighted housing projects and there were few businesses to speak of north of 15th St,“ says Tooker.  Six years later, his “if you build it, they will come” approach led him to take over the space at 375 Valencia to begin building out what would become Four Barrel as we know it today.  Early on, they served coffee out of the roll-up door on their back alley on Caledonia St until the storefront was ready for business.  While the specifics are different – Valencia St was already being filled in south of 15th St, so moving in to the empty neighborhood north of 15th was just a natural evolution of that, while the San Bruno Ave corridor already bustles with activity - their beginnings in the Portola are taking them and the neighborhood down what they feel to be a familiar path.

A hipster 'fixie' at Four Barrel's Valencia St location.
Photo: Chris Waddling
Keenly aware of how some new businesses can be viewed as agents of change, Geren and Tooker don’t see themselves as trying to attract new or different residents to the neighborhood.  With the same attitude that brought their first location to Valencia St, they instead see their move into the space at 1 Burrows St as reaching out to Portola, Visitacion Valley, Silver Terrace, Excelsior, and Bernal Heights neighbors who may not routinely come to San Bruno Ave for their daily coffee fix. The expectation is that once there, people who come to Four Barrel will go on to shop at other businesses along the corridor.  Tooker is quick to add that they’ll also be working hard to attract people who already come to San Bruno Ave to shop. 

Like “Four Barrel” on Valencia and “The Mill” on Divisadero, Geren and Tooker hope to appeal to everyone, whether it’s someone who simply wants to get caffeinated with a high quality $2 cup, or a coffee nerd who can distinguish the subtler tasting notes of stone fruit and Meyer lemon in their cup of Ethiopian Wollega Wato. Geren adds that their approach is “to create a space where, if people feel the desire to learn more they can, but we want cater to every level of coffee interest.” They also expect that by not providing wi-fi, their shop will be a place where the community can gather over a cup of coffee and connect on an “IRL” level – in the words of Tooker, “Four Barrel is your Facebook while you’re in here.”

Geren and Tooker have felt a warm Portola welcome already, receiving numerous emails from residents who have thanked them for deciding to open in our neighborhood.  This gives them a confidence that they are on the right track and are building something that the community truly wants and that will help bring a new energy to the entire San Bruno Avenue shopping corridor. They recognize that there will always be those who fear gentrification, but their way of overcoming this perception is partially laid out in what Tooker calls the Four Barrel manifesto. “We really just try to be good neighbors.” 

Taking the concept of being a good neighbor a step further, Four Barrel, like many other roasters of their size, work hard to source their coffee directly from farmers rather than use third party distributors.  This allows them to be able to provide more money to the growers in order to help sustain their own livelihoods.  To Four Barrel, being a good neighbor doesn’t stop at their street or city.  To them, you have to be good global neighbors, and they hope that their local neighbors see the benefit of being socially responsible and choose to follow Four Barrel’s example.

Four Barrel’s Geren and Tooker were introduced to the Portola through Juan Carlos Cancino of the San Francisco Greenhouse.  Since committing to the neighborhood, they have received significant funding and logistical support from both the Portola Neighborhood Association and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, through the SF Shines Facade and Tenant Improvement Program, to develop a space that will feel like it’s always been a part of the community.

Inside Four Barrel's Valencia St location.  Photo: Chris Waddling

While the design of the new space is still under wraps, it will draw inspiration from the Portola neighborhood around it, with a loving nod to the greenhouses and heirloom roses that the Portola was once known for. Working again with BoorBridges Architecture, known for their stunning designs throughout the city, the space will feel like it is part of the pocket park that the PNA recently won a city-wide community challenge grant to build at the end of Burrows.  Future goals for them include activating the space between the building and the freeway as a usable green space. Tooker recognizes that there will be obstacles to overcome, but they would rather face the challenges that a neighborhood like the Portola presents rather than those they might encounter in Hayes Valley or Union Square. 

We’re looking forward to Four Barrel bringing their friendly brand of coffee culture to our neighborhood, including their popular “Brewing Better Coffee at Home” classes and involvement in Portola community events.  Look for Four Barrel to open at 1 Burrows St towards the end of the year.

Co-written with Erik Auerbach of Coffee Uber Alles

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